Best of 2014: Film

When I was in high school, I used to see a lot of movies in general, but in particular, I used to see a lot of movies in the theater. Part of this was a natural byproduct of living in Los Angeles -- when you live in Los Angeles, you absorb a great deal more pop culture and knowledge about media than you do living in other places. It's everywhere. You know people who are involved with the industry. You know what movies are coming out because movie culture is all around you. But also, going to the movies was a way for me to get away from my parents and do something by myself, have my own experiences, my own feelings, form my own intellect and emotions. I took it very seriously. I found an independent theater in my local mall and saw every foreign/indie film it played. I saw great movies and then took my friends to see them again, hoping they'd see and feel what I did.

Anyway, after high school I moved away from Los Angeles, and my movie-watching habits basically died with that move. Since then, I've created almost every excuse possible to avoid movie theaters. I don't know why. I think I hate sitting still? Well, yes. But ultimately I think I just prioritized other things, and told myself seeing movies wasn't worth it. After all, I was fine without them.

But in the back of my mind, I always wanted to get back to seeing movies. And appreciating them. So this year I started hanging out with a guy who loves seeing movies, and sees a lot of them, and I decided to just go with it. And I also volunteered at two film festivals, hoping that being around "film nerds" again would jump-start my desire to rediscover that part of myself.

This plan worked exceedingly well. For the first time since high school, I feel I can write a "top 10 films" list for this year. That was the last time I saw more than 10 films in a given year. Crazy. Anyway, I feel passionately about this list, whether it be a movie that gave me a lot of feelings, or one that made me laugh, or one that made me appreciate cinema, or one that was just plain fun.

If you haven't seen these 2014 films, do it:

1. Boyhood —I was so fortunate to get to see Boyhood this May, at a special SF International Film Festival event honoring Richard Linklater at the Castro Theater. Even though this film breaks the biggest rule I have about seeing movies (it's 3 hours long), I was fully engaged after learning it was filmed over the course of 12 years. I loved this beautiful piece of cinema. Watching this cast evolve over the course of 12 years, this is a coming of age story unlike any other -- and yet, it is simultaneously a universal coming of age story. Families are never perfect. We all have our moments. We make good decisions and bad decisions. There are moments, and people, who help shape and define you. There isn't a huge crisis moment in this film, and there's not supposed to be. That's not how it works. Linklater is a genius and this is truly cutting edge cinema. If you didn't like Boyhood, then ultimately I don't really think we understand each other.

2. Interstellar — I first heard about Interstellar about a year ago. My mind was blown by the premise and the possibilities. I spent a year trying very very hard not to get too excited about it, and not to set unrealistic expectations. I wanted this movie to be incredible. Amazingly, I must have done a pretty good job, because it lived up to all of my expectations, hopes and dreams. An epic saga. Another 3 hour film that broke boundaries in filmmaking while paying homage to the past. Really fantastic. I can't believe Interstellar and Boyhood came out in the same year. They're both worthy of being #1.

3. Birdman — This is very much a "typical" Amber Movie. Independent, quirky, funny, sad, dark comedy, slightly surreal with an amazing cast. It did not disappoint. I'd been looking forward to this for most of the year and I'm happy it's getting the attention it deserves. From a filmmaking perspective, this was just so fantastic: shot in a month, mostly in one building, with very few shots. A lot of talent is required to shine in a situation like that, and that's what really makes Birdman a great film. Emma Stone stood out in multiple movies I saw this year, but this one more than any other.

4. The Grand Budapest Hotel — AKA the most beautiful, twee movie ever made, am I right? I just loved this movie, especially because it lacked conflict. Secret confession: I love movies that don't have a lot of conflict in them. This was basically just an incredible study in design, and oh my. I want to live there. Also: weird Eastern European stuff. You know I'm into that. I'm not always into Wes Anderson movies, but this one, swoon. 

5. Guardians of the Galaxy — I just saw Guardians of the Galaxy a couple weeks ago. It came out in August and I was going through a rough time and never got around to it. I think I'd lowered my expectations a lot by the time I saw it, but I really loved this movie a lot more than I thought I would. Adorable, fun, surprisingly funny. It was hard for me seeing Karen Gillan as a bad guy, but she played it well. The rest of the cast, which I thought I'd find annoying, was actually quite good. I just wish I'd gotten to see it in 3d. It was perfect for 3d. 

6. Godzilla — Oh gee, getting to see San Francisco destroyed by a giant monster and a giant lizard??? SIGN ME UP. I don't understand why people didn't like this movie. I thought it was hilarious and awesome. What were people expecting? It's Godzilla! From a b-movie empire. I mean come on. This was great fun, especially in 3d. I absolutely loved the alternate universe San Francisco with the cheesy b-movie touches. If you were offended by the alternative BART logo, then we probably shouldn't be friends anymore. And oh also GIANT LIZARD. 

7. Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 — I think the Hunger Games movies keep getting better as they go along. Which is great, because I was really incensed about the first movie. Of course I saw it right after finishing the books, so I'd probably be upset no matter what. Overall, though, I also think they've gotten better at making these movies over time. And Jennifer Lawrence never gets old to me. She's actually making me like this series more than I did when I read it -- another near-miracle. 

8. The Green Prince — I saw this truly incredible documentary while volunteering this summer at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. It's the story of a Palestinian man who spied against his own people for Israeli intelligence, and the Shin Bet handler who became his friend. It's truly astounding -- you keep wondering, "Wait, is this really a documentary?!" It is. And it even has a happy ending. 

9. Death Metal Angola —This is a documentary about the rise of death metal in war-ravaged Angola. I bet you don't know much about what Angola has been through, or that there are metal bands there, or that they stage their own music festival to showcase their music -- but they do. Every person should watch this documentary, even if they don't care about metal. Humanity is the same everywhere. Angola has so much to recover from, but the people are the same as they are anywhere else. It's an important thing to understand. 

10. Under the Skin —A truly surreal movie with very few words spoken. Scarlett Johansson is basically an alien trying to experience human things like love. Love and sex. And she has a great deal of trouble figuring it all out. Hard to explain, but absolutely worth seeing. I'm allowed to say that you should see this movie because Scarlett Johansson takes her clothes off, right? Right. I never said I was a good person or anything. 

And because this is my blog, I'm going to complain about movies! I consider myself really easy to please, and I am not a film snob at all, but these rubbed me the wrong way, are still stuck in my craw, and deserve to be called out:

1. Snowpiercer — I don't know what on earth any of you are thinking. This movie was a disaster, it was marketed wrong, Sony cut a bunch of stuff out of the movie that probably was the stuff that made the movie meaningful or make sense ... it was just not good. I hate gratuitous violence, and since this film was marketed in part as "science fiction" I wasn't expecting a full-on action movie. I'm also rarely interested in straight up action movies, because gratuitous violence is gratuitous, basically. And action without context is boring. The characters are all unlikeable and that never changes throughout the course of the movie. The worst part is that Snowpiercer enjoys a 95% freshness rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Wait. What? Really?! Are you serious? I give up.

2. X-Men: Days of Future Past — I think this franchise has reached the level of trying too hard. This movie was two and a half hours long, and yes we know Jennifer Lawrence is in this franchise now, yadda yadda yadda. I was just ... tired of it? Where are all the characters I enjoy seeing? Did this movie really need to be made? Maybe we've reached X-Men saturation point at last. I mean, this wasn't a bad movie, it just wasn't 92% freshness rating fantastic. I was disappointed -- and it has Jennifer Lawrence in it, so usually that means I like the movie no matter the content. It should have been better, and could have been better. Maybe next time?

3. Gone Girl — This was a well made film, and the score was excellent (truly excellent!), but my problem with this movie ultimately has to do with the plot.  And that isn't the movie's fault. It's the book's fault. I realize it's supposed to be disturbing, I just ... really, really didn't like it. I really hated every single character in this movie, and they weren't "complicated" characters, they were unlikeable and unredeemable. I felt far worse leaving the theater than I had going in. Maybe that's the point, but I just can't say this is a great movie, because it reflects the worst of us. And I feel a little weird about how this was the first film produced by Reese Witherspoon's production company, whose mission it is to feature "strong female roles" -- this certainly is a strong female role, but it kind of reinforces terrible things that people already think about women ... I realize many feel differently, but maybe I'm just not the target audience for this kind of thing?


There were some other good movies I saw this year that didn't make it on the list: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, A Million Ways to Die in the West, Horns, Chinese Puzzle, The Signal, Video Games: The Movie, Particle Fever, Jodorowsky's Dune; and a few comically bad movies that don't warrant discussion here (I'll give you a hint: Michael Bay is responsible for both).

Next year I want to see more independent and foreign films. Here's to 2015.


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